The Chinese are ordinarily a deeply secretive lot but with a rich cultural legacy and the starring of Wendy, the first time a Chinese has taken up a lead acting role in local film, has caught many viewers quite by surprise.
But critics called Wendy’s role cultural imperialism by the Chinese and a bid to create total Chinese hegemony in Zimbabwe.
Richard Musonza, a cultural activist and author of Dynamics of Culture told Radio VOP in an interview: “The Chinese are shrewd business people and all over the world they are now influencing the arts and culture sectors immensely. You could call it purely cultural imperialism that they have extended in Zimbabwe just the way Westerns have done.”
But the soap producer and film maker Godwin Mawuru said Zimbabwe was deeply polarised politically and that shaped negative perception of some Zimbabweans towards the Chinese people.
Mawuru fell short of describing Zimbabweans, who have rejected the Chinese, as being simply xenophobic. He said as an artist he wanted the arts to function as a powerful tool for uniting and enlightening people.
In the film, Zimbabwe’s oldest and most popular soap, Wendy plays the role of May, a Chinese girl who finds herself in a black Zimbabwean family after meeting and falling in love with Welly, a young dreadlocked man, while both lived in South Africa.
Welly promises May heaven and earth in Zimbabwe and marriage. True to her Chinese culture May demands to do things in Zimbabwean Shona tradition like preparing traditional food and a traditional wedding. She is prepared to learn the Shona traditions and impress her boyfriend’s family.
Some Zimbabweans have totally rejected the Chinese people and see them as people who are plundering Zimbabwe’s resources while locals wallow in poverty.
President Robert Mugabe’s “Look East Policy”, which interprets to mean favouring business and trade with the Asian bloc particularly China, is viewed skeptically as being personally motivated and mortgaging the southern African country to the far East in exchange of “crumbs” of aid.
The “Look East Policy” has subsequently seen the Chinese flooding nearly all sectors of what is left of Zimbabwe’s moribund economy from manufacturing to commerce and even retailing.
Mawuru said those who negatively criticized the casting of the Chinese actress, on grounds of political ideology, were narrow-minded and missed the bigger picture.
“By bringing in Wendy I am bringing people of the world together, saying these are a new culture or new people coming into our midst and country and how do we relate to them? Should we be afraid of them or should we interact with them and get to know them better. And the foreigners should also know us better,” Mawuru said.
While the soap zeroes in on the Chinese actress the subplot broadly explores the manner in which Zimbabweans generally relate to other nationalities of the world.
“I think the Chinese phenomenon is not particular to Zimbabwe. If you look across Africa the Chinese are coming big time in terms of business but I am not sure at social interaction level,” Mawuru said.
Radio VOP tracked down Wendy in Harare and finally caught up with her. It was painful to get her to open up. She said she preferred her role in the soap to speak for itself.
A daughter of a soldier Wendy grew up in a military camp and went to university in Beijing. She is an economist and is now studying for an MBA at the University of Zimbabwe but also operates a business venture. She has lived in Zimbabwe for five years and in South Africa for two years and speaks Chinese, English and the local vernacular Shona.
“Acting is a good chance for me and on behalf of the Chinese people to interact with Zimbabweans at the social level so that people here know and understand our culture. After all we are not bad people as portrayed by those who have rejected us,” Wendy told VOP in an interview.
“Culture is culture and politics is politics. But you see, politics wants to control culture and as artists we are saying no to that. As an actor I want to bridge the gap and hate that has been created by politics amongst the people of the world. We are living in a global village and Zimbabwe is open to do business with the world and why should anyone raise their eyebrows when a Chinese shop is opened in the city?”
Wendy said the Chinese were generally secretive but said China was not necessarily a closed society. Life is most influenced at family level and not by the Chinese government as people would want to believe, she said.